St. Paul tries pilot compost pick-up program

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“Recycling alone is not gonna get us to the bottom of that trash can,” Dianna Kennedy said about Eureka Recycling’s new composting project. The program, which includes collecting food waste and soiled paper products from three groups of 200 households each and turning the waste into compost, is part of Eureka’s effort to fulfill the city of St. Paul’s goal of becoming a waste-free city by 2020. An additional group will receive education about composting and a fifth group will serve as a control group. 

The trial project launched June 18 in St Paul’s Macalester-Groveland community, which was the first neighborhood to participate in St. Paul’s recycling program about thirty years ago. Eureka has been conducting research for the project since 2001, partnering with the Green Institute, an environmental nonprofit. While the project in Macalester-Groveland is currently funded by the High Winds Fund, a private group associated with Macalester College, Eureka hopes that success will gain them government funding for a citywide program.

Why compost?

Many people already compost in their own back yards to break down yard waste and some organic food waste into soil they can use for gardening. The advantage of compost collection versus home composting, said Kennedy, who is the Director of Communications at Eureka, is in the variety of food waste that can be composted. Eureka’s composting program will process meat, dairy, soiled paper products, such as frozen food boxes, and even bones.  All of these items must be composted in a very controlled environment unavailable in a backyard compost bin.

If you don’t compost, the waste ends up in a landfill. Compost facilities break down the waste aerobically, or in the presence of oxygen. Landfills, however, are an anaerobic environment that produces methane, a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide.

Tim Brownell, the CEO of Eureka, expressed concern with the amount of methane landfills produce. While a good landfill will capture much of the methane created by anaerobic decomposition, this can only happen when the section of the landfill is capped. Food waste decomposes within the first 90-120 days, so it decomposes in the landfill before sections are capped and the resultant methane escapes, Brownell said. As a result, during the whole process, more than half the methane the landfill produces escapes. “A landfill operator who has invested interest in a facility, financial and otherwise, will tell you, ‘Oh we’re capturing at least 75% of the methane and up to 90%,'” Brownell said. “The highest rates we’ve seen are closer to 46%.”

How does compost collection work?

To determine the best method of collection, Eureka has split the neighborhood into several groups.  Compostable material is collected differently for each group. One group must drop off their compostables at a collection point on Macalester College’s campus, where trucks collect it once a week. Another group has their compostables picked up weekly on the regular recycling route by special trucks designed to collect both recycling and compostables. And workers hauling receptacles on bicycles pick up the compost of a third group, also on a weekly schedule.

A green compostable material bin beside trash and recycling bins waiting for pickup

Currently, there is only one large-scale composting facility in the area. The company which owns the facility, SET, processes the waste using windrows. Windrows are basically large 6-8 foot piles, which are turned regularly and kept at a controlled internal temperature of 130-160 ºF. The management of the windrows is the difference between backyard compost bins and the large-scale facilities that allow materials like meat and dairy to break down without rotting and for materials like soiled paper products to break down at all.

Once the waste becomes compost, SET sells it to the Minnesota Department of Transportation or to the city of St Paul, for both planting and preventing erosion. The public may also purchase the compost from a branch of the company called the Mulch Store.

When is compost pick-up coming to your neighborhood?

Some folks may have learned the slogan in kindergarten, “reduce, reuse, recycle,” but staff at Eureka described a more advanced model, which they call the “solid waste hierarchy.” At the top of the hierarchy, of course, is reducing waste created and next is reusing materials for their original purposes. However, since there’s always going to be some material you can’t reuse, such as the banana peel that has to go somewhere, the next two levels are recycling and composting. Finally, the bottom level is landfills.

The current waste policy, said Eureka staff, mostly concerns itself with landfills. “Some of the rules that the state has and some of the subsidies some counties are paying actually support the bottom end of the hierarchy, and we need some of the rules to change,” Brownell said, “Let’s have the funding support the hierarchy.”

The composting program has been very well received by the Macalester-Groveland community. Gena Berglund, a  Macalester-Groveland Community Council member and a participant in the program, said that, “People are excited about Macalester-Groveland being at the cutting edge of change in Minnesota.”

The timeline for citywide compost pick-up is uncertain. Funding for the pilot program in Macalester-Groveland runs only through September 17. No funding for continuation or for a citywide plan has been identified.

Eureka believes that this is a necessary step to reduce waste entirely in the city of St Paul and is fully committed to doing this by the year 2020. “We need to create systems that mimic the environment. There is no waste in natural systems,” said Brownell, “Waste is preventable, not inevitable,”